I didn’t know holiness would be so hard-won.
As with many new believers, I enjoyed sudden victory over some of the sins that had marked my unbelieving life. I flew on eagles’ wings. I leapt from one degree of glory to another.
But then sanctification slowed. The eagles’ wings faltered, leaping turned into walking, and some sins became besetting. I prayed for more holiness, more faith, more love, but often, God seemed to answer by illuminating new corners of darkness in the cavern of my flesh. I began to resonate with John Newton in his hymn “I Asked the Lord”:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face. . . .
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
In moments like those, I needed to remember what God had promised about my sins. I needed to remember that my holiness does not rest on my frail shoulders, but rather on God’s almighty resolve, from eternity past forever into the future, to make me blameless before him (Colossians 1:22).
If you have tasted God’s grace in Christ, and long to enjoy more of him, but carry the awful weight of sin, know this: God will conquer all your sins.Book of the Slain Lamb
Before the foundation of the world, God planned to conquer all our sins.
God was under no illusions about our loveliness. He saw the worst about us — even those parts of us that we are yet to discover. He saw every wicked thought that would run through our minds, every distorted desire that would pulse in our hearts, and every twisted deed that would pass from our hands, and still he said, “You will be holy and blameless before me” (Ephesians 1:4).
God took up his pen and wrote our names in a book: “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8). The persons of the Trinity agreed that the Son of God would become a slaughtered Lamb to save us.
The darkness you discover inside yourself cannot deter God’s love for you in Christ. His love is an everlasting love, a love that has been burning from the fires of eternity past — a love that has seen you, known you, and saved you still. We may be shocked, even dismayed, by the layers of sin we still find in our flesh, but God is not. Breathe in, and say with J.I. Packer,
There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself. (Knowing God, 42)
Our sins were God’s enemies before they were ours, and he will win the warfare he’s begun.This Body of Death
Even now, amid all the struggle, God is conquering all our sins.
Perhaps you hesitate to use the word conquering. Sanctification may feel more like the crawl of a glacier than the march of an army. But the inch-by-inch progress we make against specific sins can sometimes obscure the larger battles God is winning inside of us.
Consider how Newton resolved the tension he felt in “I Asked the Lord.” Why did God answer his prayers for holiness by allowing him to feel the power of his indwelling sin? Newton answers from God’s perspective:
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”
Sometimes, we can become so focused on specific sins — sexual immorality, anger, laziness, bitterness — that we forget they are merely the fumes of a far deeper decay: our obsession with self and pride. And God will do whatever it takes — even “inward trials” — to free us, not only from the risings of individual sins, but also from the swamp of self that gives them life.Freed to Fight Hard
When God allows us to feel the hidden evils of our flesh and the angry powers of hell, he aims to make us “seek thy all in me.” He aims to draw us ever closer to himself — the one who heals our wounds, clothes our nakedness, restores our sanity, and welcomes us home with singing (Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:22–24). He breaks our schemes of earthly joy and liberates us for heaven’s.
None of this is to say that we should stop fighting the specific sins that assault us most, or that we should have low expectations for the growth God might grant us. Scripture gives us every reason to take heart in the fight against sin, and to believe that stunning victories are possible (2 Peter 1:3). This is simply to say that, when God brings us to cry with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he does it so we will join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25).
In God’s hands, our slow sanctification can humble us, chasten us, and conquer our love of self-reliance, so that we might seek our all in him.God’s Final Victory
One day soon, God will finally conquer all of our sins. Sin’s downfall has been brewing since Genesis 3, when God promised to cleanse his earth of Satan’s poison (Genesis 3:15). Calvary assures us that God is keeping his promise. The serpent’s skull is broken and bleeding out. His time is short (Revelation 12:12).
Meanwhile, creation aches, God’s children groan, and angels stand on tiptoe — all waiting for the Conqueror to come again and give us final freedom.
And suddenly, he will. It will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The trumpet will sound, the sky will tear open, and the Lord Jesus will deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24). Jesus will destroy every rule, every authority, and every power that exalts itself against God — including every sin that still leeches onto your soul.He Must Reign in Us
Christ will reign. And therefore, as John Piper writes,
There is no disease, no addiction, no demon, no bad habit, no fault, no vice, no weakness, no temper, no moodiness, no pride, no self-pity, no strife, no jealousy, no perversion, no greed, no laziness that Christ does not aim to overcome as the enemy of his honor. . . . Christ’s reign reaches to the smallest and biggest enemy of his glory. It will be defeated. (“He Must Reign”)
God is not indifferent to the sins that still afflict you. He yearns for you to be free at last from every enemy (Ephesians 5:27). He yearns for you to wake up with worship on your tongue, for every particle of your body to dance with joy in him, for your torn and sundered self to finally be whole in his presence.
He yearns, Paul tells us, to “sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And with the yearning comes a promise: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
Death is but a doorway that God’s children alone should never fear to walk through.
In the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) moved into a small, spartan cabin he had built on the wooded edge of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived there, as simply as he felt he could, for two years, two months, and two days. In his own words, here’s why:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear. (Walden, 31)
“Living is so dear.” Thoreau felt this deeply. He didn’t want to discover too late that he had missed life’s essential preciousness. And he knew this was a real danger. As he looked around, he saw lots of shallow living.Looking for Real Life
He saw that the vast majority of people, both religious and non, were absorbed by trivialities like fashion and social status and fancy food and the best wines and bigger houses and wealth accumulation and all the life-consuming labor it required to attain and maintain these possessions. People just assumed that what everybody else seemed to value must be valuable, and very few stopped to reflect on whether or not that was true. It disturbed Thoreau that
shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. (32)
Thoreau believed that in chasing shams and delusions, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (4). He determined not to live this way.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (31)
He published his account in 1854, in the book that became his most famous: Walden, or Life in the Woods.Long Line of Lookers
Did Thoreau find what he was looking for? Did he suck the marrow out of life — not wasting even life’s bones for nourishment?
He did well in unmasking the delusionary nature of the daily pursuits that waste many lives — pursuits that have only multiplied since Thoreau’s day. For that reason alone, reading Walden is beneficial. He did well in simplifying his life in order to enjoy deeply the deep wonders of creation — wonders that are all around us. This too is a benefit of reading Walden, if we will actually strive to do the same in our contexts.
But did he “rout out all that was not life”? Did he find out what life essentially is? No, he didn’t. Like the long line of life-lookers before and after him, Thoreau identified vanity parasites that suck so much time and energy and resources out of people’s lives, but did not discover the essential essence or meaning of life. Thoreau’s experience would have made him agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that “the wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness,” but he also “perceived that [death] happens to all of them” (Ecclesiastes 2:14).
Simplicity and solitude in the Walden woods yielded Thoreau helpful reflections on life — especially how not to live. But the essence of life was not in simplicity and solitude. Otherwise he would not have left off his spartan experiment. Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, not a Christian. He references more Hindu texts in Walden than biblical texts. But it’s interesting that his closing remarks in the book express his longing for “a resurrection and immortality” (106). Walden helped him see things, but he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.Where to Find Marrow
And that’s because the essence of life is not found merely in simplicity and solitude and trying to get closer to a nature pulsing with life and convulsing in death. Life is not in today’s minimalism movement or sustainable living movement, nor is it in dream houses or bucket-list pursuits. All these things are “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14) if we are not finding life’s essence, its meaning, in the Creator of life. The unwasted life is the life we receive from him and live for him (John 1:12–13).
But Thoreau recognized a biblical truth when he weighed the vanity of many people’s life pursuits: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). A good question for us Christians in the affluent West is, Are we taking care and being on our guard against all covetousness? Do we have any idea how much of our lives are being siphoned off by the incessant demands to attain or maintain our desired lifestyles? Do we have any idea how much good we cannot do to others because of these incessant demands?
The marrow of life is not in our possessions or titles or degrees or anything else that will pass away with this age. The marrow is found in the man Christ Jesus and the mission he has given us. All transitory gifts God provides are for us to enjoy and for us to employ in the mission he calls us to (1 Timothy 6:17–19). But if we look to these things for life’s marrow, we will find them hollow bones.What Thoreau Never Caught
This emptiness is shown by what has become of the site of Thoreau’s experiment in pursuing the marrow of life. Walden is almost sacred ground for many, memorialized with granite stones like a grave. A half a million pilgrims visit the site each year, because they resonate with Thoreau’s God-given sense that life should not be wasted. Though, ironically, the grounds now house a state-of-the-art visitor center and gift shop.
It isn’t so much in Thoreau’s simplicity that he points to the way that leads to life. It’s in his ending words, his intuitive sense that there must be a better future than this — “a resurrection and immortality.” His intuition was right, even if his religious conclusions were not.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Which is why Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). And it’s why Paul said that those who put their hope in the Resurrection and the Life “[store] up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
No one in heaven envies the rich of this world. No one covets the famous. No one praises the powerful. They have discovered what it means to “live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” They have found that which is truly life: Jesus Christ.
God does not require any of us to keep a journal. But journaling may help some of us see Christ, love Christ, and become like Christ.
An outpost of heaven on earth. That’s what Eden was when “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east” (Genesis 2:8). But God had big plans for this little outpost.
God formed the first man, Adam, and “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Adam was to be the gardener in the garden. But he was also to be the guardian of the garden, the ruler over the garden. It was a big task. He needed a helper.
So God created the woman, Eve. They were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Clearly an expansion project was in the works. It was God’s intention that the garden would spread so that the whole earth would become a home, one he would share with his image-bearers.From Garden to Temple
As Adam and Eve worked and kept the garden, Eden would grow beyond its current boundaries, and the glory of their royal rule would increase. As Adam and Eve were fruitful and multiplied, more offspring in the image of God would come to glorify God by enjoying him forever. As Adam and Eve, who were made in the image of God, obeyed God, they would bear his likeness in an even more glorious way.
But evil slithered into the garden in the form of a serpent, and Adam failed to subdue it. Instead, Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and transferred their loyalty to him and away from the God who made them. Having become unholy people, they could no longer live in this outpost of heaven in the presence of a holy God, so they were sent out into the surrounding wilderness.
Later, God created another outpost of heaven. It was the Most Holy Place in the temple, where he came down to dwell among his people. But only one person, the high priest of Israel, could enter this outpost of heaven, and only once a year. And eventually this holy habitation was also sullied by human sin.From Temple to Son
So, God sent his Son. When Jesus began his ministry he announced, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Heaven invaded earth in the person of Jesus, the second Adam. He came to take the sin of an unholy people upon himself and to give to them his own perfect holiness. Why? So that God’s intention for the whole earth to be a home he will share with his image-bearers will become a reality that his people will enjoy forever.
Jesus, the King of heaven, is going to come again to this earth. And when he does, this earth will become heaven. It will not merely be a little outpost of heaven surrounded by wilderness like Eden was. It will be far more expansive. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Imagine it this way — everywhere you look, all you will be able to see will be the goodness and glory of God.What Will Heaven Be Like?
When heaven comes to earth, it will be filled with people who bear the glorious image of God. Everyone you meet will be completely joyful, fearlessly authentic, and perfectly loving. And there will be so many interesting people to get to know — a “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). What a joy it will be to be surrounded by brothers and sisters from every age who will all have stories to tell about how the Father chose them, and the Son rescued them, and the Spirit changed and sustained them.
Eden was sullied when Satan invaded the outpost of heaven in the form of a serpent, bringing his lies and rebellion, destruction, and death along with him. But when heaven comes to earth, “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Revelation 21:27). There will be nothing to fear, no temptation to overcome, no cause for shame. No more pain. No more death. Perfect and unending security.The marriage woes of Eden will be overcome.
We will be “as a bride adorned for her husband,” and will forever be joined to our faithful Bridegroom (Revelation 21:2). Into eternity, as the bride of Christ, we will be fully loved by our holy husband. This, the best of all marriages, will never end.The nakedness of Eden will be covered.
God will clothe us in white linen that has been washed by the blood of the Lamb. We’ll be dressed in royal robes of righteousness fit for reigning with Christ. The shadow of Sabbath rest, one day in seven, will give way to the substance of an eternal day of enjoyment of all that God has made, all that God has done, and all that God is.The barrier to the tree of life in Eden will be removed.
The tree of life that was in the midst of the garden of Eden will be there, but it will have expanded to every side of the river. Instead of producing one kind of fruit, it will produce twelve kinds of fruit. And instead of one crop of fruit a year, it will produce a new crop of fruit every month.
The abundance and satisfaction of the new heaven and new earth will far exceed what Adam and Eve experienced in Eden. The nagging sense of discontent inherent to life in the wilderness of this world will be gone for good as the fruit of this tree will satisfy us fully and forever.The Home of Everything We’ve Ever Longed For
And it’s not just that the fruit of this tree will feed us. The leaves of this tree will heal us. In fact, the leaves of this tree will heal everything. All the scars left by sin will be healed. All the wounds inflicted by harsh words, the infection of cynical attitudes, the disfigurement of racism — it will all be healed. All the emotional scars left by abuse, the relational tearing apart caused by divorce, the societal discord caused by pride, the governmental corruption caused by greed — it will all be healed.
Many people speak of what God is preparing for his people as a restoration of Eden. But, my friends, it’s far better than that. The home God intends to share with his people for all eternity will be far more secure, far more satisfying, far more glorious than the original Eden. One day his kingdom will come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s going to be everything we have always longed for. It’s going to be even better than Eden.
Of the fifteen distinct elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, one in particular may be the least understood of them all: “An overseer must be . . . respectable” (1 Timothy 3:2). What does it mean for a pastor to be “respectable”? And doesn’t it not throw quite a curveball into an otherwise spiritual list of qualifications?
For starters, Christ not only calls for pastors to be “respectable” (1 Timothy 3:2) but for all Christians to live “godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Respectable and dignified are largely synonymous. And one way Christ shows he’s serious about his followers being “respectable” is by requiring this virtue of his undershepherds. Christ means for his church’s pastors, elders, and overseers (three terms for the single teaching office, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–2; Titus 1:5–7) to live, teach, and serve as examples for the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
Pastors are to be respectable, not only to help the flock in its call to respect its leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12), but also to model the kind of dignity the church should demonstrate to the world. Paul mentions “dignity” again in how a pastor fathers (1 Timothy 3:4), as well as a requirement for both deacons and their wives (1 Timothy 3:8, 11). Christ calls his church to respect her leaders, and he calls her leaders to do their part to be respectable.What Is Respectability?
What, then, does it mean for a pastor to be “respectable”? One commentator says it “conveys the ideas of ‘seriousness’ and ‘appropriateness.’” (Towner, 170). It displays a kind of “orderly life” (Guthrie, 92) that puts others at ease and engenders trust. According to John Piper, “The idea seems to be one of not offending against propriety — a person who comports himself in situations so as not to step on toes unnecessarily.” Respectability loves others by not being rude (1 Corinthians 13:5).
The kind of dignity or respectability to which God calls his people is not simply outward appearance, words, and behavior, but a manifestation of inward virtue. It’s a subtle quality that demonstrates internal stability, and is not an outward show. It elicits respect and demonstrates worthiness of trust. Respectability often pairs with the inward focus of self-control (as in Titus 2:2; Mounce, 173), and together self-control and respectable complete “a picture of honorable and dignified bearing” (Towner, 252).
Good pastors, and growing Christians, will want to ask themselves, Do I live and speak in such a way as to help others take me and my Lord seriously? Does the way I carry myself in the church, and in the world, set the table for others to experience “serious joy” in Jesus because of me? Or do I needlessly undermine God’s worth by talking, dressing, or behaving like a fool? We acknowledge the difference between being respect-ed and respect-able. We are not charged to be respected; that lies beyond our control. But we can be respectable.
Good leaders, out of love for their people, cultivate and maintain a kind of humble, godly “dignity” that encourages, rather than discourages, respect from others. They make it easier, not harder, for the flock to take them seriously. As workers for the joy of their people (2 Corinthians 1:24), pastors want to help, not hinder, the church as she fulfills her part of the dance: to obey and submit to the shepherds in such a way as to “let them do [their work] with joy and not with groaning” — for the advantage of the church (Hebrews 13:17).Comments, Clothes, and Carriage
Practically, what forms does such “respectability” or holy dignity take? The New Testament gives us at least three aspects to keep in mind, beginning with our words.What We Say
Respectability encompasses our speech, from the stage, in conversation, and down to the words we publish for the world through social media. In particular, pastors show themselves respectable, or not, through their teaching. “In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7–8).
The foulmouthed pastor may elicit a short-lived rush of excitement for bucking tradition, but the draw will soon run dry. Undignified speech is no recipe for long-term stability, health, and trust in a pulpit, or in an individual, at the office, or in the neighborhood. When Paul requires “dignity” of deacons and their wives, he pairs it twice with words: “dignified, not double-tongued” and “dignified, not slanderers” (1 Timothy 3:8, 11).
Faithfully and compellingly preaching and teaching God’s word is the heart of a pastor winning (or losing) the trust and respect of his people. Respectability extends beyond our words and teaching, but for pastor-teachers “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) comes first.How We Dress
Respectability also relates, unavoidably, to how we dress. The only other occurrence of the precise word for “respectable” in 1 Timothy 3:2 (Greek kosmios) comes just sentences earlier: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9). How we dress, relative to societal expectations and norms, engenders respect or undermines it. And God means for his people, beginning with the leaders, to be the kind of people who, in both primary and secondary matters, seek to make respect easy for others, not more difficult.
It is at least juvenile, if not self-absorbed, to attempt to draw special attention, whether positively or negatively, by the way we dress. Love and maturity lead us to consider others, from a full heart, and to try, within reason, to put them at ease, rather than shock, offend, distract, or entice.How We Live
More than mere comments and clothes, how we carry ourselves in life cultivates respect and trust, or not. How we treat the members of our family, with whom we may be quickest to let our guard down, demonstrates dignity or lack thereof (1 Timothy 3:4). How we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ — Jesus called it “love” — will either show the world we are his, or not (John 13:35) And how we deal with “outsiders” — whether “properly” (1 Thessalonians 4:12) or not, and “in wisdom” or folly (Colossians 4:5) — demonstrates to others whether we are worthy of their respect.
With our words, dress, and actions, we signal inward rest and security and stability, or neediness. We evidence whether our hearts are satisfied in God and ready to overflow to meet others’ needs, or not. We show ourselves to be starved for attention, or eager to give our attention to others. Humility demonstrates concern for others, while outward ostentation broadcasts an inward emptiness aching to be filled.We Smell a Fake
Insisting our pastors be “respectable” — and calling all Christians to cultivate “dignity” — raises the question, Won’t such a standard make us too focused on externals? Doesn’t our God see things differently? “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Given the inward emphasis of our faith, isn’t this a strange qualification for leadership and an odd aspiration for Christians, of all people?
God does indeed look on the heart, but our fellow creatures do not have our Creator’s vision. Carrying ourselves respectably should not be an act toward God to earn his favor, but a modest presentation toward others from a heart of love. True respectability is not a life-goal but a natural effect of self-control. It gives an external glimpse to others of the internal maturity God sees, and is himself working, in us. True dignity is not staged or put on. And when it is, it doesn’t take long to smell a fake.
We all know there is a kind of pretend dignity that’s not natural to a person’s maturity but put on for show, typically to compensate for some insecurity or perceived inadequacy. Such “dignity” is not produced by a heart satisfied in God, seeking to put others at peace, but a restless, growling stomach seeking to fill itself with others’ attention and approval. Faux dignity is selfish, rather than selfless. It dresses, acts, and speaks “up” to protect and posture itself above others. But selfless dignity serves. It comes down from its heights to associate with others, bring up the lowly, and foreground the needs of others.Effected by Grace
Soon enough all the façades will fall. The curtains will swing back, the makeup will wear off, and every tree will be known by its fruit (Luke 6:44). The true dignity and genuine respectability that remain will be the kind that didn’t begin with us and isn’t decisively owing to us.
Christian dignity (Titus 2:7) grows in the soil of divine grace (Titus 2:11), and in particular the coming of Grace Incarnate. Christ not only dignified our race by becoming human, and then gave his own life for us, but now he works in us by his Spirit to remake us. Though we are deserving of disrespect, he counted us respectable, and now is making us truly worthy of respect, little by little. His grace dignifies doubly, not singly, by both accepting us fully, by faith, and making us more acceptable for a lifetime.
The power for pastors to be “respectable,” and for Christians to live “dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2), is not left to our willpower, discipline, and natural sense of sophistication, but to the Spirit of God himself. He is at work in and through us to free us from self and miraculously make us look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. In humility we count others more significant than ourselves, and we do what we can, within reason, for others and for Christ, to be worthy of respect.
No spouse is perfect. Every husband will disappoint his wife, and every wife will disappoint her husband. But Jesus more than makes up for every failure.
When you are desperate for God to intervene in the midst of your trials, where in the Bible do you turn most often for hope?
Over the last decade, 2 Chronicles 16:9 has been a favorite for me: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.” God is not slow to see our needs. He is not distracted or preoccupied. His eyes run to give strong support to those who are his. He is an attentive Father and a tenacious comforter.
The fierceness and tenderness of God’s love in this verse makes the next six words all the more chilling:
“You have done foolishly in this.” (2 Chronicles 16:9)
When the prophet Hanani reminded King Asa that God’s eyes run to and fro throughout the earth, he was warning the king, even condemning him, not reassuring and comforting him. What was his message to Asa? If you seek God’s help in your desperation, no one and nothing will be able to harm you. But if you run elsewhere for help, and do not turn to God, no one and nothing will be able to save you.How to Rely on God
Asa knew the sweetness of seeing God suddenly send strong support. Just two chapters earlier, when a million Ethiopians descended on his army, and he was outnumbered two to one,
Asa cried to the Lord his God, “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11)
What kind of heart does God run to support? First, one that recognizes that no one and nothing can help like him — “O Lord, there is none like you to help.” God does not promise to help those who treat him like a last resort, and not as a first defense. Asa looked immediately to God when the Ethiopians invaded, not to his own resources and not to his allies, knowing that God alone was greater than all his enemies.
Second, the one whose heart is blameless toward God acknowledges his own weakness and God’s strength: “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak.” The Ethiopians were mightier, in power and number. Judah, the nation under Asa, was weak. But the king knew that his God confounds the wisdom of even the wisest men and overturns the power of the strongest armies — making the mighty weak and the weak mighty to reveal more of his own magnificence.
Third, Asa took the courageous next step in reliance on God. He prayed, “Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude.” Because they trusted their sovereign God to act, they did not run and hide, but advanced. They went into a battle they could not win on their own.
What happens when Asa runs to God for help? God runs to fight for Asa: “So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled” (2 Chronicles 14:12). Asa relied on the Lord, and God defeated a million soldiers.Your Wars Won’t End
But Asa’s heart did not remain wholly God’s. When Baasha king of Israel attacked Judah, even though Asa had already seen the Lord defeat a million Ethiopians because he prayed, the king turned to Syria for help — and not to God.
Then Asa took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the Lord and the king’s house and sent them to Ben-hadad king of Syria. . . . Ben-hadad listened to King Asa and sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel, and they conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel-maim, and all the store cities of Naphtali. (2 Chronicles 16:2, 4)
With Syria’s help, Asa won the battle, but he had lost the Lord’s support. The blazing eyes that had once run to and fro to help him, now hid from him. “You have done foolishly in this,” the prophet says, “for from now on you will have wars” (2 Chronicles 16:9).God Will Not Help You
When we run to someone or something to the exclusion of God, we reveal that, at bottom, we rely on ourselves instead of on him. We trust that we know better than God what would be better for us. Instead of stopping, praying, and looking to God for support and direction, we unlock our phones and thumb through our contacts for someone like Syria.
When conflict flares up in our marriages and friendships, and we neglect to actually stop and ask God for his help, should we be surprised when conflicts become more frequent and volatile? When our ministries are mired in swamps of relational or organizational problems, and we keep putting off concerted prayer about the issues, do we expect the waters not to rise even higher while our feet sink deeper and deeper? When major decisions hover like a storm cloud, and we do everything else we can possibly think to do, except the most important thing, will we not feel like a million enemies have lined up against us?
Asa teaches us, through stubborn failure: if we rely on ourselves and look elsewhere for help, not only will God leave us to fend for ourselves, but the wars may never end.The Worst Way to Die
What if Asa would have seen just how much he lost when he won the battle without God? What if he would have seen how shallow and temporary his victory was? What if he would have listened? Instead, Asa hated the prophet’s message: “Then Asa was angry with the seer and put him in the stocks in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this” (2 Chronicles 16:10). That’s how stubborn self-reliance responds when confronted with the truth — in Asa and in us.
Three awful years pass until Asa’s death: “In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12). Is there a more pitiful demise? He preferred to die in a physician’s hands rather than entrust himself to God’s. Jesus would say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Mark 2:17) — even as the disease climbs from their feet to their heart.When You Need Him
When God reminds us, through his word, how much we need him, either pride will rise up in rage to defend itself or humility will send us to our knees with brokenhearted joy. When we feel our need for God, and yet resist running to him, we should not expect him to run to us. He will not prop up our self-reliance, because it says so little about him. Another king, a humbled King David, would have warned Asa (and anyone like him), “Though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar” (Psalms 138:6).
However, if we run to God and rely on him, casting our burdens on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7), trusting that the one who did not spare his Son for us will gladly give us all we need for everlasting joy (Romans 8:32), God himself will help us — whenever we need him, however weak we feel, whoever or whatever stands against us, whatever it takes.
If his eyes ran to and fro throughout the whole earth to rescue an ancient and wandering king, how much more will he race to rescue those for whom his Son died to save.
At what point, if any, does depression or joylessness disqualify a pastor from ministry? Pastor John gives several factors to consider.
Christian self-denial constantly says “no” to that which threatens to steal joy forever.
Christian slaves in America sometimes were forbidden to sing — even to God. So when they went to the river, they would hang wet blankets around themselves, then sing into pots filled with water to absorb the sound. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), they couldn’t hold inside their songs of praise.
Perhaps what you’re facing makes you wonder if God has turned his back on you. Your trial may last a day, a year, a decade, or more. But I doubt your circumstances are worse than that of those Christian slaves, stripped of liberty and dignity, with families routinely torn apart. Yet they couldn’t force themselves not to sing.
Throughout the centuries and around the world, many suffering believers affirm that God uses hard times to draw us to him, to give us a profound happiness in him, and to build greater Christlikeness and dependence. We pray “bring me closer to you, Lord,” and usually in answer, our loving and sovereign God keeps trials coming our way — even sometimes when we beg him not to.
There’s no nearness to God without dependence on God. And nothing makes us more dependent on him than when the bottom drops out.Inevitable and Purposeful
We Christians will be delivered from eternal misery. But God never says we’ll avoid hardships now. In fact, he specifically promises them, in verses we seldom post on the refrigerator. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). I smile when I read this. It’s like God is saying, “Whatever gave you the idea you wouldn’t suffer?”
The apostle Paul told believers he was sending Timothy to them “to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:2–3). If we don’t know this, we should! When we think of what God has destined us for, abundant life and resurrection come to mind, but trials rarely do. Yet God assures us that he himself — not the curse or Satan — has actually destined us to suffer. Afflictions are not just inevitable; they’re purposeful. Though they may appear random, they are the product of God’s intelligent and loving design.
In Trusting God, Jerry Bridges wrote, “That which should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan.”Good Comes Through Adversity
What can suffering do for me? It can show me the impossibility of finding true happiness outside of God. When what I once leaned on for happiness — my health, career, wealth, or popularity — crumbles into dust, the way is cleared for me to see that God is my only solid foundation.
We’re right to ask God for relief. Nevertheless, every time we ask him to remove difficulty, we may be asking him to forgo an opportunity to declare his greatness or deepen our relationship with him. When did you last hear someone say, “I grew closest to God when my life was free from suffering”?
Ten months after his son was killed in a car accident, Greg Laurie told me, “What I wish is that I could have learned and grown and drawn close to the Lord just like I have, but that Christopher was still here.” Greg captured it perfectly — I too wish I could have all the good God brings through adversity without all that pain. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?What None of Us Wanted
My beloved wife, Nanci, was diagnosed with colon cancer eight months ago. She has undergone a long series of difficult treatments. We’ve experienced countless appointments and changed diagnoses and timelines. We’ve seen long-term planning become guesswork.
As Nanci and I walk this path together, we’ve resolved to worship our sovereign God, who bears the scars of his love for us. We read his word and discuss great books about his attributes. We sense his presence and see him increasing our dependence on him. We’ve been deeply touched as our family and friends rally around us. It’s been my privilege to serve Nanci more than ever, especially after all the ways she has served me over the years.
God graciously brings all this good out of what? Out of what none of us wanted to happen.
Our Father sometimes answers our prayers to relieve our suffering, and each time he does we thank him wholeheartedly. But when he answers no, we must honor his desire to work in us more deeply.
If asked, “Do you want to be closer to Jesus, and more like him?” we all know what we should say. Yet, if God answered all our prayers for relief from suffering, he would be delivering us from the very thing we say we want. Christlikeness is something to long for, not be delivered from. It’s not easy to pray, “Please do whatever it takes to make me more like Jesus.” But when he does whatever it takes, we should trust him.Welcome What the Good Trials Bring
Since suffering builds character, no wonder the Bible tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). How can we possibly welcome difficulties instead of resenting them? By trusting God when he tells us trials draw us closer to him, mature us, expand our ministry, and prepare us for eternal joy.
God doesn’t command us to cheer because we’ve been betrayed, diagnosed with cancer, or lost a loved one. Rather, our joy comes in the expectation of adversity’s by-products, including the development of godly character, greater dependence on Jesus, and countless reasons hidden to us for now (but crystal clear in our Father’s mind).
Paul said, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). Paul and James both claim we should rejoice in suffering because of the fruit it ultimately yields. When we see with an eternal perspective, we can say, “This trial is difficult, but God is sovereign, loving, and kind. Through his grace and empowerment, I will become more like Jesus and closer to him. And I will be eternally grateful for what God did through these hard times.”Enter the Joy of Your Master
Someday, we’ll see with clear-eyed certainty that God’s word was right all along, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” and that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:18, 28).
Someday, we’ll appreciate the value of each minute of every purpose-filled trial. But let’s not wait until we die to believe what God says about our present suffering. By faith, for his glory and our good, let’s front-load God’s promises into our hearts and minds today, and get a head start on entering into our Master’s happiness.
While the world brags about their careers and finances and skills, we will boast in Christ.
One of the great duties of the Christian mind is imagination. But not all uses of the imagination are a Christian duty. Some are exactly the opposite. Nor is the imagination the only duty of the Christian mind. The mind is also charged with the duties of observation, analysis, and organization.
Imagination happens when the mind goes beyond observation, analysis, and organization of what’s there, and imagines what is not seen, but might be there — and what might explain what we do see (as in the case of most scientific research). Imagination also happens when the mind imagines a new way of portraying what is already there (as in the case of creative writing and music and art).Imagination Hijacked
There is imagination that is incredibly creative, and yet deceptive, even pathological. The book of Proverbs creatively portrays this kind of deceptive creativity. For example, Proverbs 26:13–16:
The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!
There is a lion in the streets!”
As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer sensibly.
These picturesque (imaginative!) verses might be four distinct proverbs only related by the fact that they are all about the sluggard. But I suspect there is more going on in this grouping than that.
The imagination of the sluggard is in full swing in verse 13. He invents, out of his own wonderfully imaginative head, a nonexistent situation in order to justify his lazy unwillingness to get up and go to work: “There’s a lion in the streets!” He does not want to go out. So his imagination kicks into gear and creates a situation in which he can’t go out. This is deceptive. He is using his imagination to lie.
But it may be worse than that. He might even believe his own imagination. The middle two proverbs emphasize the depths of this man’s sloth. He stays in bed. The greatest extent of his progress toward a productive goal is like a door on a hinge. Movement. But no progress.
As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
When he manages to get to the breakfast table, he is so lazy he can get his hand into his dish, but he can’t get it out. This man is on his way to starvation. Won’t work. Can’t eat.
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
The point: sloth leads to self-destruction.
But then comes the stunner. This man thinks he’s brilliant. He is more impressed with the shrewdness of his imaginative powers (“There’s a lion in the streets!”) than he is with the true wisdom of seven sages.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer sensibly.
In other words, his powers of imagination have reached such levels of creativity and cleverness in the service of his sloth that he has lost touch with reality and is living in his own masterfully crafted cage of creativity. This is why I said the imagination can be pathological. This is not Christian duty, but Christian defection. Sin has hijacked the imagination, and made it the servant of self-deception.Minds at Their Most God-Like
So let’s turn from this destructive use of the imagination to the Christian duty of imagination. I say that imagination is a Christian duty for two reasons. One is that you can’t apply Jesus’s Golden Rule without it. He said, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). We must imagine ourselves in their place and imagine what we would like done to us. Compassionate, sympathetic, helpful love hangs much on the imagination of the lover.
The other reason I say that imagination is a Christian duty is that when a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, organized clearly, and communicated boringly.
Imagination is one key to killing such boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world — all of it — rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth — whether from the world or from the word of God. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.
Imagination may be the hardest work of the human mind. And perhaps the most God-like. It is the closest we get to creation out of nothing. When we try to express beautiful truth, we must think of a pattern of words, perhaps a poem. We must conceive something that has never existed before and does not now exist in any human mind. We must think of an analogy or metaphor or illustration which has no present existence. The imagination must exert itself to see it in the mind when it is not there. We must create word combinations, and music, and visual forms that have never existed before. All of this we do, because we are like God and because he is infinitely worthy of ever-new verbal, musical, and visual expressions.Make a New Song to Sing
A college — or a church, or a family — which is committed to the supremacy of God in the life of the mind will cultivate many fertile, and a few great, imaginations. And oh, how the world needs God-besotted minds that can say the great things of God and sing the great things of God and play the great things of God in ways that have never been said or sung or played before.
Imagination is contagious. When you are around someone (alive or dead) who uses it a lot, you tend to catch it. So I suggest that you hang out with some contagious people (dead or alive) who overflow with imaginative ways of expressing things. (The Bible may be the most imaginative book of prose in the world. Not because it creates reality that is not there, but because it puts that reality in so many surprising expressions.)
Imagination is also like a muscle. It grows stronger when you flex it. And you must flex it. It does not usually put itself into action. It awaits the will. I encourage you to exert this muscle in your mind. Make conscious efforts to express precious truth in striking and helpful ways. Think up a new way to say an old truth. God is worthy. “Oh sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1; 33:3; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10) — or picture, or poem, or figure of speech. Let’s flee together from the sin of boring people with God and his amazing works and ways.
Many of us spend our days running around with few breaks. So how do we repent of our sins when we find it hard to pause even for a moment?
My wife and I often have the privilege of guiding couples through premarital counseling. Meeting with these couples forces me to ask myself a helpful question: “How much of a hypocrite am I?”
The question comes up because I spend time in these sessions expounding on the glory of marriage: the joy it brings, the gospel it displays, the permanence of its vows, and the goodness of our distinct callings as husband and wife.
But imagine hearing those glories from a husband who regularly complains about his wife and compares her to the many women he gazes at. You probably wouldn’t listen to what this man says about marriage. If he doesn’t love the wife he’s married to, you’d wonder whether he loves marriage at all.
But isn’t this what too many of us do with the church? We claim to love the church, but our love for the church seems to have little effect on how we feel about our church.Love the One You’re With
Our relationship to our own church is often marked by discontentment and disappointment, much of which comes from the comparisons we keep making to the imaginary church in our minds. Which, in the end, might say more about us than our churches.
Let me suggest a few ways you can hold up your end of the bargain and contribute to your church’s health, which simultaneously will increase your love and gratitude for your church.1. Prepare in prayer.
I know people who eventually became so cynical about their church that they expected not to benefit from the Sunday morning service. One way to fight against that cynicism is to find out what the sermon text will be and read it prior to the Sunday service. Then pray for your pastor as he prepares to preach it (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). If you come to church ready to be edified, you might be surprised how the Holy Spirit will work.
And don’t stop after you’ve prayed for your pastor. Your church has difficult people in it, maybe people who have hurt you. But it’s awfully hard to harbor bitterness toward people you pray for regularly. Pray for your pastors, pray through the church directory, and pray for the people you’d rather not run into. If you want your disposition toward your church to be positive, you need to begin with prayer.2. Find ways to serve.
We often reap what we sow in our churches. Are you making a contribution to your church’s life? If you haven’t yet, try finding a place where you can serve and put the needs of others before your own. Don’t worry about finding a perfect place to express your giftedness. Instead, look mainly for a need you can help meet. God gifts his people for the needs of their actual church, not in some abstract sense (1 Peter 4:10–11).
One simple yet profound way you can serve people in your church is to talk to them. Seriously. I bet there are people in your church who don’t have people who show genuine interest in their lives during the week. So take an interest in them. Ask them questions about their work or their family or their hobbies. Ask how you can pray for them and if you could get together sometime. If you do what you can to ensure other people love your church, I bet you will too.3. Check your expectations.
It’s tempting to expect your church’s preaching and music to provide a weekly shot of spiritual adrenaline to keep you going. But is that a healthy expectation? Not every meal you’ve ever eaten was a memorable one, but it kept you fed. Your church’s preaching might not lead you to a spiritual high every Sunday, but if it’s faithful, and you’re ready to receive it, those sermons will keep you alive, and much more.
As you examine your expectations, consider taking a hiatus from conferences and podcasts. These can be incredible resources, but they also can fuel discontentment. At a conference, you spend a few days listening to rich teaching in an exciting environment. Then you go home and listen to your same old pastor with the same old people. And your church building probably isn’t as cool as that arena you were in.
If you listen to sermons on a podcast, you might start to notice how your pastor doesn’t measure up. Carl Trueman once expressed concern that none of his students named his own pastor when asked about favorite preachers. If your favorite preacher or conference is making it difficult for you to benefit from listening to your actual preacher, try skipping the next conference and taking a break from podcasts for a season.4. Stick it out.
Many marriages begin in pure bliss. But what’s important is how a husband and wife respond when the sheen has worn off, they’ve grown accustomed to each other, and they’ve become more familiar with the sin patterns and imperfections of the other. A healthy marriage responds by settling into a stable, earthy kind of romance where the spouses truly know and truly love each other. They see the flaws, they recognize them as such, they fight to grow, and they love each other through it all.
Our relationship to our church progresses in a similar way. Any church starts to look unexceptional over time. When we’re at a church long enough, we come face-to-face with its flaws and those of its leaders.
So what do we do? Leave? Sometimes that’s a legitimate response. But more often than not, we should stay, for the long haul. We should learn to be grateful for our pastors and the way God has gifted them and put them in our life. And we should learn that church is not about blow-your-mind weekly experiences, but about walking toward the golden shore with brothers and sisters in Christ.Her Spotless Hope
Like every group of people to ever come together, your church is flawed. But the church is not just another group of people. The church has a past, present, and future that far outshines all other institutions. Jesus died for her, and he’s coming back for her. In the meantime, he is working through her to reach the lost and strengthen his people.
One day, she’ll be spotless, and it’s to this hope she presses. So love the church, and start by loving yours.
Other people’s interests are our interests because other people’s interests are Christ’s interests.
He was a journalist once. Eddie Brock investigated corruption, fought on behalf of the oppressed, and tried to make a difference in the world. He was trying to take down evil — until he was “taken” by it.
An alien, a symbiote, a hungry beast that devours flesh, Venom possesses an insatiable hunger for blood and violence. A parasite of power with an unquenchable appetite, the thing that first scares Eddie soon becomes a guilty pleasure, a redeemer, a friend. The alien monster, bent on survival and satisfaction, finds a companion in down-and-out Eddie. Although millions of miles from its planet, this destructive darkness finds a home in the human heart.
Allured by its power, Eddie tries to reason with it. But the parasite lives by a different rule: “We will do what we want.” In his dark suit, gripping a man by his throat, the creature answers who he and Eddie are: “We are venom.”Are We Venom?
Rated the modern-day PG-13 (which means it would have been “R” a decade ago and I doubt 13-year-olds should see it), the movie is one of the darkest Marvel thrillers yet. Instead of starring a superhero, it stars an antihero — a villain that flirts with redemption while doing good things, for mixed motives, to villains slightly more nefarious than himself.
This antihero thriller/dark comedy features the relationship between the flesh-eating alien and its host, Brock. The dialogue between the two comprises the heart of the film’s intrigue. Something about it captivates. Not withstanding its language and violence, the film seeks (however successfully) to be about humanity, the inner conflict in us all.
Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that preceded it, Eddie Brock wrestles with the “inner voice in his head,” the propensity to evil within us all, which, here, is embodied in an alien life-form. The monster is fiction, but what it represents is not. The actor (Tom Hardy) says that his character learns how to negotiate an ethical framework in a world full of grey — like us. Brock’s story is all of ours to one degree or another.
What brings out the venom in you? was the question posed to some of the cast in a prerelease interview. This led Tom Hardy and Riz Ahmed (the worse-than-the-main-bad-guy character) to confess their own impatience and anger. Ahmed even revealed his need to meditate as a way to combat his inner alien. They too have a dark side, confirming God’s depiction of them: they are sinners.
The hashtag the movie presents for its fans, #wearevenom, is spot on. The Bible tells us what we already know: venom lives in each of us. Maybe this is why the antihero genre (in movies and in television), as well as darker superhero movies in general, have gained traction in recent years. A peppy, law-abiding Captain America and an ethically-unswerving Superman feel out of touch with reality — our reality. Deep down we know that the antihero is less of a disguise than the Marvel superheroes we might dress up as on Halloween. Even if we are knights, we are Dark Knights.
Doing wrong comes more naturally for our race. With minds bent towards lust, tongues that stab our closest relations, eyes fixed unflinchingly upon ourselves, fists that shake at their Creator, hearts that too often shelter our inner demons, we are Venom. And God agrees. Jesus came as Light into “darkness,” not because the sun had ceased to shine, but because humanity’s inner black casts a shadow on all creation (John 1:5; Romans 8:20–21).Battling the Darkness
For some Christians, this Jekyll-and-Hyde, Venom-and-Brock split-persona plays into a common misunderstanding about our identity.
Most often, we might assume, the Christian is a lover of Jesus. He tries to spend time with his Lord, seeks to love his neighbor as himself, and shares the gospel when the opportunity arises. By all appearances, he is a committed follower. And he would say that he is — most of the time.
But at other times, he transforms into a creature that seems hardly human (Psalm 73:12). His innards contort, darkness crawls over his skin. “Satan’s signature seems to be written upon his face” (Stevenson, 18). He may maul family members with his words, feast upon pornography, or drink the blood of worldliness before his madness has run its course. In these times, he lives for himself and devalues his God. He has, for want of more dire vocabulary, become the old man.
After his depravity is spent, his venomous old-him disappears into the night, leaving the new-him to stew in the guilt and consequence. And because the alien lives in his shadow, he never has lasting victory (how could he?). He is two — a schizophrenic between good and evil, an antihero. He never can truly be sure if he is even saved — how can he enter the kingdom of heaven stuck to this monster? Is he free from sin or a slave to it (Romans 6:16–22)? Is he darkness or light? A follower of the Savior or of Satan (1 John 3:8–9)?
We may fear, with Eddie Brock, that the darkness will consume us too. We wonder how it will be for us when the hero returns to finally destroy evil. Will our darkness be taken from us, or will we be taken away with our darkness?The Old Man
This leads to the point: The Christian no longer harbors Venom. By assuming that the old man still dwells within, we miss out on key aspects of our identity in Christ.
The world is full of Jekylls and Hydes. Although the Christian assuredly still battles with the flesh, he is not, at the core of him, darkness: “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8). Paul, while knowing about struggles with remaining sin — this week’s fall and next week’s temptation— looks us in the eye and tells us this scandalous truth: you are light. Not partially light. Not a flickering bulb. Not a black hole. You are light.
We may be hesitant to own our new identity because we’re scared to take remaining sin too lightly. But such a caution was foreign to the apostles (and, through them, the Spirit) who bombard the early church (and us) with a singular identity. They audaciously call us saints (literally “holy ones”). Chosen by God. Beloved of God. New creations. God’s temple. Christ’s body. Lights of the world. Salt of the earth. Children of God. The aroma of Christ. Good trees. A chosen race. A royal priesthood. A people for God’s own possession. More than conquerors. Lovers of God. Faithful servants. Light. Children of light. Lights of the world. Co-heirs with the Hero of eternity.
Although Satan calls us unredeemable villains and our experience calls us antiheroes, God calls us his righteous ones. We are who he says we are. A butterfly may crawl around like a caterpillar for a time, but it cannot be what it once was. We are new creations.Decisively Saved, Not Barely
The Christian will war with the flesh until he sees Jesus face to face, but darkness does not define him.
And this distinction is crucial for holy living — for as a man thinks, so he pretends to be. Grace’s new perspective teaches us to reckon ourselves as God reckons us as fuel to live as God calls us to live: “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). Know you are light; then live as you are.
When we embrace what God says about us, we will take sin more seriously, not less. When we view ourselves as half-light, half-darkness, yelling at our roommate will not be altogether unexpected: it’s who we are. But when we see ourselves as God does, and as he has spoken, when we realize the actual newness of regeneration and the power of the Spirit dwelling within, we will consider sin out of place. Clean pants hate stains.
As unbelievers wrestle with who they are, know that in Christ you are not the antihero. You are not Venom; you are light. Don’t believe the lie that you must crawl into heaven as a barely-saved, mostly-depraved, darkness-enslaved, Venom-behaved Christian. God himself, not a depraved alien, lives within you.
The Bible makes claims that may appear outlandish to us. But we must never forget: God’s word does not answer to us; we answer to God’s word.
October 19, 2014, is a day I will never forget. It’s the day my life changed forever.
I went to the hospital with what felt like minor symptoms, and in a flash, I was admitted for an excruciatingly painful ten-day stay. I will never be able to adequately describe the pain I felt. This was pain like I never knew existed, and after a particularly horrible and longer-than-usual spasm, I looked at my wife, Luella, and told her I wanted to die.
I was in acute kidney failure, and had I waited another seven to ten days to go to the hospital, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Four years and six surgeries later, my symptoms are as manageable as possible, but I have been left a physically damaged man.Hearts Under Attack
My traumatic experience, and the life-altering results that have accompanied it, was and is physical. But my suffering experience and your suffering experience will never be limited to simply the physical realm.
Suffering is emotionally exhausting and spiritually burdensome; it’s spiritual warfare. Suffering is never just a matter of the body but is always also a matter of the heart. When you suffer, your heart is under attack. Suffering takes us to the borders of our faith. It leads us to think about things we’ve never thought about before and maybe even question things we thought were settled in our hearts.
If you haven’t noticed, you are not a machine. If something dysfunctions in a machine, the machine feels no sadness, is not tempted to worry, does not question long-held beliefs, doesn’t wish for the life of another machine, and has no concern for what the future holds.
By God’s glorious design, we live out of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23; Mark 7:14–23; Luke 6:43–45). But too many of us, while battling the isolated cause of our suffering, forget to battle for our hearts. In so doing, we leave ourselves open to more complicated, longer-lasting, and increasingly painful spiritual and emotional suffering.Exposed by Pain
This is humbling to admit, but my physical experience did two things for me. First, it exposed an idol of self I did not know was there. Three years before I got sick, I lost forty pounds, changed my whole relationship with food, and began to exercise more aggressively.
It worked. I kept the weight off and felt younger and more energetic than I had for years. I traveled every weekend to conferences around the world and wrote book after book in between. I look back and now see that I lived with assessments of invincibility. I was not a young man, but I felt like I was at the top of my game.
When I realized I was very ill and that weakness and fatigue would be with me for the rest of my life, the blow was not just physical, but emotional and spiritual as well. I didn’t suffer just physical pain, but also the even more profound pain of the death of my delusion of invincibility and the pride of productivity. These are subtle but deeply ingrained identity issues. I would’ve told you that my identity was firmly rooted in Christ, and there are significant ways in which it was. But underneath were artifacts of self-reliance.
The second wonderful (and painful) thing my experience exposed was a lack of trust in placing my complete dependence on God. Weakness simply demonstrates what has been true all along: we are completely dependent on God for life and breath and everything else.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that he’ll boast in his weakness. He has come to know that God’s power is made perfect in his weakness. You see, you and I should not fear weakness. We should fear our delusion of strength. Strong people tend not to reach out for help, because they think they don’t need it. When you have been proven weak, you tap into the endless resources of divine power that are yours in Christ. In my weakness I have known strength that I never knew before.No Valley Too Deep
Are you suffering right now? If not, you will someday. And in the meantime, look around, because someone near you is. In the midst of your pain or someone else’s pain, don’t neglect the heart and the spiritual and emotional battles that rage for control.
Remind yourself that the painful things we deal with are not some bad accident, horrible luck, or indication of a massive failure of God’s plan. Note how the Bible talks about our experience in the here and now:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7–10)
God leaves us in this broken world because what it produces in us is way better than the comfortable life we all want. I haven’t always felt this way, but it’s true that in our suffering God isn’t saddling us with less but graciously giving us more.
And take hope. Scripture never looks down on the sufferer, it never mocks our pain, it never turns a deaf ear to our cries, and it never condemns us for our struggle. The Bible presents to the sufferer a God who understands, who cares, who invites us to come to him for help, and who promises one day to end all suffering of any kind once and forever.
Your Lord is in you, he is with you, and he is for you right here, right now. So with gospel courage, keep walking forward in faith, knowing that there is no valley of suffering so deep that God’s grace in Jesus isn’t deeper.
How does our passion for happiness fit with God’s passion for glory? Pastor John lived with this tension for years, until he found Christian Hedonism.